Not too long ago, Americans only dressed up in George Washington wigs and tri-corner hats on the Fourth of July. But then the tea party came along. Colonial garb started turning up at rallies all year around.
In quick order, the legacy of 1776 started “belonging” to the tea party crowd. The Founding Fathers, the tea partisans claimed, wouldn’t abide government interference in their lives. And neither should we. If we today just stayed true to 1776, the United States would remain forever “exceptional.”And how do we stay true? The tea party — and like-minded GOP conservatives in Congress — had a ready answer: No new taxes. Ever. Not even on the super rich. Forget all that fussing about inequality. Starve the beast. Keep government small.
This basic line quickly became the reigning mantra within conservative circles. But this dogma jumbles the historical record. The patriots of 1776 didn’t stage a revolution to keep government small. They revolted to keep America relatively equal.
As new archival research by economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson documents, those colonists lived in a society that sported far more equality than mother England. In 1774, on the Revolution’s eve, the colonies probably enjoyed “a more egalitarian income distribution” than “any other place on the planet,” Lindert and Williamson write.
Our colonial top 1 percent took in just 8.9 percent of colonial household income. Back in England, the richest 1 percent raked in 17.5 percent, nearly twice that share.
Free American colonists — from average families — had significantly higher incomes than their English counterparts. And the rich in the colonies had significantly smaller incomes than England’s richest.
What explained the difference? In mother England, American patriots noted, wealthy aristocrats were manipulating the levers of government to enrich themselves and deny average people the “fruits of their labor.”
Our generation of 1776 considered aristocracy a direct threat. They would struggle to free themselves — but not their slaves — from it. Their new nation, they pledged, would be a republic.
The founders had read their history. Previous attempts to establish republican rule — in Athens, Rome, Venice, and Florence — had all failed. Inequality had wrecked them.
Our founders wouldn’t repeat that mistake. They would celebrate the relative equality of their young nation as a bulwark of republican liberty.
“We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth.”
Added Jefferson: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
To Jefferson and his generation, equity seemed nature’s way. Most colonials lived on small farms. The earth they farmed could yield only so much wealth. If government just let the economy alone, no one would ever become fabulously wealthy.
This advocacy for “limited government” seemed to make sense in an agrarian nation. But the United States didn’t remain agrarian. A century after 1776, giant corporations lorded over America’s economic landscape, and new industrial elites were enriching themselves at the expense of working Americans.
But working Americans would fight back. Over the first half of the 1900s, they would use government to limit the corporate power to exploit. They would put in place progressive taxes that cut the new corporate rich down to democratic size. They would, in short, stay true to Jefferson’s egalitarian vision.
Over recent decades, we’ve lost that vision. Our top 1 percent now expropriates a greater share of national income than the old English aristocracy did.
The tea party followers and their pals don’t mind this glaring inequality. But the founders cared deeply about equality. So should we.